I tell myself I’m done. I am convinced I’ll never return to this race. I’ll volunteer next year, I tell myself. But then I find myself signing up once more. Sometimes I’m a stupid man.
For the second time in two weeks, and for the second year in a row, I headed out to Ruffner Mountain to run Crusher Ridge 42K. I had just been there for Day 1, 18 miles, of the Birmingham Stage Race, so I knew what was coming. The Clubber Lang of trails races was about to punish me.
Ruffner Mountain is not an expansive area, but there are a lot of trails and “trails.” The latter being the kind of trail where the race organizers, Lisa Booher and Mary Campbell, just plant a flag and say “look at this new trail. Don’t die.”
You see a trail here?
Neither do I , my friend.
If Mary and Lisa weren’t so darn cool and nice, and if this race didn’t benefit an organization as awesome as the Exceptional Foundation, I wouldn’t go back. Or I’d at least think worse things about Mary and Lisa during the race (well, worse than I already do, at any rate).
For the 42K, runners complete two loops of a crazy hard course that takes you by each of the three “Crushers” on course. Ruffmnr Mountain used to be an active mine collecting limestone and iron ore for Birmingham’s iron and steel industry from 1908 until 1953. My dad grew up not far from Ruffner Mountain and when I was 40, safely away from my adventurous teen years, he thrilled and shocked me with tales of how in his youth, he and his friends once sneaked into a still operational Ruffner and explored the mines and maybe even borrowed some dynamite from the blast shack.
The Crushers remain, and so does some of the cable that operated them, as well as the beds for the railways that took the ore and limestone out of the mine to the mills. Reclaiming the area and making it useful again has been one of many great things happening in my hometown. And that makes the opportunity to run in the place where my father played as a younger man such an attractive proposition to me, regardless of the pain I feel during the race.
The First half of the loop takes you to ridge and valley, over and over again. With trails called Bronco and Bloode Chute and AMF, how could you go wrong? I have named this section “Devil’s Cradle” because Satan gently rocks you to your running death, up and down the hills until your thighs burn with the heat of a thousand suns, and your heart feels like it will pop out of the top of your head. Good times.
The second part of the loop I wouldn’t call easy by any stretch of the imagination, but compared to the first half, you don’t feel like crying as much. There was a section as I finished Bronco for the second time where I truly debated whether I’d climb faster by crawling on hands and knees. During one particular endless climb (I’m not exaggerating here, it never ended.) I tried climbing by walking backward, until I concluded that that approach may result in an embarrassing trail mishap. “Honestly, doctor, I don’t know how that branch got there.”
I’ve run two races in my short time as a runner and even shorter trail running life that really killed me. Mountain Mist 50K is hard (and yes, I’m registered for the 2016 race). Hard enough that you worry about cutoffs. I mean really worry about cutoffs. It is that challenging of a course even on the best of days. But Crusher Ridge 42K for all its unrelenting climbs and that hopeless “Oh my, I have to do this section again?!” realization in the first loop, is probably the most difficult I’ve ever done. The two races intimidate you to the point of feeling those crazy butterflies, even when you don’t plan to race it.
You also find yourself in a running monologue about fun and how one defines it. I argued to myself that fun should really be fun. That this just doesn’t seem like the kind of fun normal humans do, at least with intent. After rhetorical questions about the nature of fun, I then start questioning the race directors. “Don’t they see, this just doesn’t LOOK fun. It doesn’t FEEL fun. Do they really hate me this much? What did I ever do to them?” Those accusations and judgements give way to lost hope. The feeling that no one will airlift you from the trail. That if you want one of those awesome medals you have to shut up and run, baldy. Or at least power hike. Which took up a LOT of the last half of the second loop. Two times through Bronco, Blood Chute, and AMF (you shouldn’t have to ask what that means) and my legs were toast. Engage survival mode.
What can I say about the organization of this race? Perfect. From course markings to swag to communication before and during the race, I couldn’t ask for anything more. Folks at aid stations were incredibly supportive and encouraging. I’m pretty sure they just felt badly for us. And those of us who struggled across the finish at the end of a very long day were treated like we won the race. (And that’s likely because they never expected to see us come out alive.)
Run this race. It will challenge you. It will humble you. Three-hour road marathoners were finishing in 5 hours. It eats you up. But when you do finish, and you will, the pride you feel is incomparable. That’s why I keep going back, against the objections of my body.